Letters: Opinion: A Tale of Two Water Districts

By Carolee Krieger, Executive Director of California Water Impact NetworkJanuary 24, 2016

El Capitan State Beach; Photo by Jalie

This is a tale of water districts, Goleta and Montecito. In general, there is more that unites them than divides them. They're in the same county, and residents of both areas enjoy the same superb Mediterranean climate. Montecito is smaller in population and is more affluent, but Goleta is hardly a sprawling metropolis. And as home to the University of California at Santa Barbara, Goleta is neither economically nor culturally impoverished.

Further, the two districts face similar water crises: They are under the same strictures for State Water Project (SWP) deliveries. In simple terms, neither gets enough water from the Coastal Branch, the SWP aqueduct that was built in the 1990s and was supposed to solve South Coast water shortages.

But Goleta is in a far better position to handle water shortfalls than Montecito. This is obvious to anyone driving around Goleta: There are a lot of new buildings going up. Given the drought, this may seem extremely unwise, but Goleta has enough water to accommodate the development, which was permitted before the current drought began.

In fact, nature has put Goleta in a far better position to handle water shortfalls than Montecito. Unlike Montecito, Goleta has a large groundwater basin, one that was adjudicated by the courts in the early 1980s. This means that the limits of the basin have been firmly established by court mandate, and that the water is distributed fairly to all stakeholders. Further, the Goleta Water District manages its groundwater in a sustainable fashion, injecting water into the aquifer during periods of high precipitation. The district also provides recycled and purified water for landscape irrigation, reducing demands on potable groundwater.

These enlightened policies constitute a critical buffer to droughts. Despite the fact that the SWP delivered only 5 percent of contracted water in 2014 and 20 percent in 2015, and Lake Cachuma managed only 45 percent of its normal deliveries during the past year, Goleta's well-managed groundwater basin has assured adequate and reliable supplies for the city's businesses and residents and the UCSB campus throughout the current drought.

As noted, Montecito has fewer options than Goleta. At best, groundwater can only supply 2 to 3 percent of Montecito's needs. SWP water deliveries, which voters in 1990 were led to believe would provide a sufficient water buffer, remain inadequate. This is unlikely to change — ever. Water rights claims in the Sacramento Delta watershed (which supplies the State Water Project) already exceed the amount of developed water in California by 5.5 times.

The best choice for Montecito, then, is the development of desalinization as a backup source. Montecito is now negotiating with the city of Santa Barbara for a joint reactivation of Santa Barbara's mothballed desal facility.

Desalinization is not a panacea for drought. Water conservation, water recycling, and storm water harvest are all avenues that should be prioritized. But for some communities that lack groundwater resources — Montecito included — limited and environmentally sound desalinization is a necessity. Without reactivation of Santa Barbara's desalinization plant, Montecito could face catastrophic water shortages during drought.

Further, despite their different options for drought response, Goleta and Montecito share an overriding common interest: Neither area would be well served by the 50-year SWP contract extension the Brown administration is pushing. In the first place, such a move is premature. The current SWP contracts will not expire until 2038. More to the point, the state's move is a stalking horse to gain approval for the Twin Tunnels, the $67 billion conveyance system that will not augment state water supplies by a single drop. All this boondoggle project will do is increase ratepayer debt to a massive degree, destroy the family farms, fisheries and wildlife of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and expedite deliveries of subsidized water to corporate farms cultivating the selenium-impaired soils of the western San Joaquin Valley.

Both the times we live in and geophysics demand a change in the development and distribution of water. The only beneficiary of centralized water policy is corporate agriculture; ratepayers, the environment, small farms and small businesses all suffer from such an approach. Climate change will only exacerbate an already bad situation; increasingly, it is clear that global warming will reduce the amount of consumptive water in California.

By transferring water policy authority to the regional and local levels, we can develop resilient sources of water and devise equitable and sustainable distribution plans. No state or federal bureaucracy knows the needs of Goleta and Montecito better than Goleta and Montecito. Both must be allowed to secure their own water futures.